Good practice 4: Collaborative learning with the Pi-project

The physics-based Pi-project is constructed with three objectives in mind. The students:

  1. develop a better understanding and deeper implementation of uncertainty in scientific experiments
  2. practise with designing, building and executing of an experiment
  3. gain experience with collaborative learning and project-based working

Theoretical background

Research shows that collaborative learning can lead to significantly increased learning outcomes (see also the illustration above, from [1]). For collaborative learning inside the classroom to work, some considerations must be followed. Heterogeneous groups reach higher levels of learning than homogeneous groups. Furthermore, interdependence results in higher outcomes. Support and scaffolding by the teacher should be of high quality. Lastly, the task should be complex enough to force collaboration between the team members.

“I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things”

Mother Theresa

Starting the Pi-project (week 0)

“Determine pi experimentally, and carry out your measurements with the highest accuracy possible”

This is the actual assignment. In ten weeks, each group of three students has to accomplish this task. Students had to plan their activities around their obligatory school schedule.

Teams of three students are ideal for this kind of assignment, as groups of three create far more group dynamics compared to groups of two. Larger team sizes lead to a growing chance of unequal distribution of workloads within the teams. The team grouping is carried out by the teacher, so that each team contains a mix of students, in gender, in abilities, but also in the type of personality. In each team, one of the students is the designated chairman.

All students receive documents with the theory on how to deal with uncertainty in experimental physics. Dates for three intermediate contact moments between teams and teacher are set, the subjects that will be discussed during each meeting are shared. The teams are shown the interactive rubric (see below) that will be used for rating their work.

A couple of tasks are set for the first check-up, two weeks later. Each team has to present a planning for the whole duration of the project (see example below, in Dutch), together with a personality analysis of all team members (strengths/weaknesses).

Each team also has to devise three different approaches on how to measure pi. All team activity is registered in a log. The chairman is responsible for the timely communication of the information. The relevant documents are shared with the teacher (using Google G Suite), well in advance of the meetings.

First check-up (week 2)

During the first check-up, teacher and team discuss the three options of how to measure pi, choosing one approach that looks to be the most promising. The teacher also advises on how to proceed with the construction of the actual experiments.

In the next two weeks, each team plans the execution of the chosen experimental approach. How does the experiment look like? What equipment is needed? Are the experiments to be carried out inside or outside of school? If inside, have reservations been made for the practise classroom?

Second check-up (week 4)

In the second meeting, the team presents the definitive experimental set-up. There is extra attention to uncertainty and measurement errors. If needed, the teacher provides some last advice on how to carry out the measurements and analysis of the results.

The team is now ready to carry through the experiments.

Third check-up (week 7)

At the third chech-up, results are available to be presented, in the form of tables and graphs. With the added challenge that all measurements also contain the measurement errors. From these measurements, a provisional value of pi might already be calculated. The teacher decides if the quality of work is sufficient enough to proceed (GO/NO GO). If not, the team has to perform extra measurements and/or calculations.

With a GO, the team can proceed to work on the final presentation. There is a choice between a written scientific report or a recorded oral presentation, in the form of a Pecha Kucha.

Evaluation (week 9)

Prior to the evaluation, the team shares all relevant information with the teacher. Apart from the presentation (report or digitalised Pecha Kucha), this consists of the planning and the team log. In the log (example in Dutch below), all activity, up to a personal level, is registered. During the whole process, the teacher encourages the students to actively divide the tasks, thus making students key stakeholders for distinct tasks and increasing the interdependency within the team.

Using the rubric, the teacher determines the (average) grade of the team. This grade, together with additional feedback, is given back to the team. There is a possibility to differentiate, within the team, in the final grade that will be assigned to each team member. For instance, the students of the example log above decided, in good consultation, to reward the Chair a better grade. To compensate for shown dedication and leadership during the process.

For some years now, the Pi-project is part of the curriculum of my 12th-grade (pre-university) physics students (17-18y), with good results. But there is always room for improvement:

  1. Preparation for collaborative learning is, at the moment, not integrated in the physics curriculum. Improvements can be found in integration of this project into the transdisciplinary collaborative learning curriculum of the school.
  2. Due to time restrictions, the student reflection on the process as a whole is not as deep as it could be.

Some results from past years:

[1] Making the black box of collaborative learning transparent: Combining process-oriented and cognitive load approaches, Janssen, J.J.H.M.; Kirschner, F.; Erkens, G.; Kirschner, P.A.; Paas, F. (2010) Educational Psychology Review, volume 22, issue 2, pp. 139 – 154

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